When a book appears called “America’s Prophet,” these days most Americans — not just Utahns — assume it must be about Joseph Smith.
Bruce Feiler’s book (published in 2009) is not.
In fact, Feiler’s American prophet is not even American.
He writes about Moses (yes, that Moses) from the Bible.
Feiler, a columnist on family matters for the New York Times, has a reputation for being audacious. The bio at the end of the book tells us he has been the “subject of a Jay Leno joke and a ‘Jeopardy!’ question."
His face also appears on a postage stamp in the Grenadines.
The full title of Feiler’s book is “America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America.” And for almost 350 pages the author forcefully argues that point in chapters titled “Let My People Go,” “I’ve Seen the Promised Land” and “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land.”
The Pilgrims and Columbus used the Moses story for inspiration, Feiler says.
Thomas Jefferson wanted Moses to appear on the Seal of the United States.
Superman and the Statue of Liberty are modeled on Moses.
And Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Moses often.
“In Washington, Moses doesn’t just live in the White House,” the author writes. “His statue stands in the Library of Congress, his tablets are embedded in the floor of the National Archives (and) Moses is practically the mascot of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Feiler then asks why the Hebrew prophet is so prominent.
Later, he sums up his answer.
“The answer comes down to three themes,” he writes. “The first is the courage to escape oppression and seek The Promised Land. The second Mosaic theme is the tension between freedom and law. The final theme is the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden.”
I went into Feiler’s book a bit skeptical, but emerged convinced.
In my own Latter-day Saint faith I see the footprints of Moses everywhere.
The unique “Book of Moses” is part of our standard works.
Brigham Young, often called the American Moses, led his people on a journey to freedom and fulfillment.
The Ten Commandments are a weight-bearing beam of LDS teaching.
And the Cecil B. DeMille movie about Moses remains a Mormon favorite.
Finally, in the last sentence of his book, Feiler explains why Moses will likely be part of the American fabric for a long time to come:
“Because,” he writes, “the ultimate lesson of Moses’ life is that the dream does not die with the dreamer, the journey does not end on the mountaintop and the true destination in a narrative of hope is not this year at all. But next.”